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Thursday, February 28, 2013
For the past 12 years, my family and I have taken our vacations at Virginia state parks. From park to park, the design and the decor of the two-bedroom cabins we rent are identical. It’s like owning a vacation home you can plop down someplace different every year.
On the walls are promotional photos taken in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s of people enjoying the various amenities. These photos were reproduced as postcards to celebrate the state park system’s 60th anniversary in 1996, and were sold in park gift shops.
My favorite photo is the only one I know of that features African Americans. It’s unusual because while the other pictures show white people camping, horseback riding and lounging on the beach, the most prominent feature in this photo is a huge Wurlitzer jukebox.
It’s as though the public relations folks of the time thought that black people would not be interested in outdoor activities, but might want to listen to and dance to a jukebox. But it probably sent a completely different message to African Americans in an era when traveling any distance required a picnic basket and a strong bladder.
That message was: “Hey! You can go to the bathroom and get a bite to eat here!”
The photo was taken around 1953 at Prince Edward State Park — also known as Prince Edward State Park for Negroes. If that name rings any bells, it’s because Prince Edward County closed its public schools from 1959 to 1964 to avoid integrating after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
White children were able to go to state-supported “private” schools, while black children went to live with relatives, were home-schooled or didn’t get any education at all. The park was established in 1950, after Maceo C. Martin sued the commonwealth when he was denied access to Staunton River State Park.
So it’s fitting that Prince Edward State Park adjoined separate-but-equal Goodwin State Park, which was reserved for whites. The two parks merged into Twin Lakes State Park in 1986. Both are open to everyone today, of course, but according to the state parks website, some black families still get together at the former Prince Edward site year after year.
In the photo, two women are posed on either side of the jukebox, seemingly almost as an afterthought. All of the other photos feature people who are supposed to be visitors, but these two women clearly are not. Over their pretty summer dresses, they wear starched white aprons. They look more like employees who have been unwillingly drafted for a photo shoot than frolicking vacationers.
Both women look tired — as if they’d already been on their feet all day. Neither is smiling. The one on the right looks slightly away from the camera, as though her attention has wandered and she’s tallying up in her head the chores she has to do when she gets home. The one on the left has her arm awkwardly draped over the jukebox. She appears to have been carefully posed to create some kind of connection between the human beings and the machine. She stares resignedly into the camera with a “this-sure-as-hell-better-be-the-last-picture-you-take” look on her face.
Although the photos are supposed to mimic casual snapshots, they most certainly aren’t. Pictures such as these are the result of painstaking setup, and it takes many hours and many frames of film to get everything just right. It’s no wonder the women look stiff and weary.
Every time I go to a state park cabin or lodge, I look for this particular photo. Last year, it hung in the bedroom I slept in. Every morning, I would look at it and see some new detail that made me feel as though I knew those two women a little better.
I wondered who they were and whether they were ever paid or credited for their work. Are they still living? They would be great-grandmothers now, if they are.
Sometimes, I wonder if I should give them names, since they seem so familiar to me. But I never do. Somehow it seems disrespectful to presume to know too much about these two anonymous women, who, whether they liked it or not, have become part of our state’s history.
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